The debate over how best to care for the poor has long divided Republicans and Democrats, but 50 years after President Johnson launched the “war on poverty,” the differences have never been more clear cut.
With a Senate vote on a Democrat-backed bill extending emergency unemployment insurance slated for this week, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle clashed Sunday over the details and on the broader issue of whether the federal government is best positioned to provide food stamps and other services relied upon by low-income Americans.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, one of the leading voices of those who believe the federal government’s approach to poverty has been and remains deeply flawed, reiterated Sunday that returning power — and money — to states and local governments would be more beneficial.
“Its programs have utility,” Mr. Rubio said of federal anti-poverty efforts during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “They do help alleviate the consequences of poverty, but they don’t help people to emerge from that poverty. And that’s why I feel like the war on poverty has failed because it’s incomplete. … These efforts need to be reformed and I believe the best way to reform them is to turn the money and influence over to the state and the local level, where I think you’ll find the kinds of innovations that allow us to confront an issue that’s complex and, quite frankly, diverse.”
Mr. Rubio made the same argument during a speech last week observing the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s war on poverty declaration. President Obama also marked the occasion by declaring the initiative a success and vowing to double down on programs designed to battle poverty and aid the nation’s poor.
Democrats on Sunday took direct aim at Mr. Rubio’s ideas, highlighting the deep divide that continues to grow between the two parties.
Democrats continue to push for an increase in the nation’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 and also support efforts such as Mr. Obama’s “promise zone” initiative, in which the federal government will offer tax credits and other benefits to depressed areas. The president announced the first five promise zones last week.
“We believe in doing more of the things that actually work, not in this cynical shell game of cap and block grant and then dismantle,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
His comments underscore the belief among Democrats that the GOP, at its core, wants to move anti-poverty aid such as food stamps to the state level as the first step in a larger effort to downsize and eventually eliminate the programs.
Republicans, including Mr. Rubio, dispute that characterization.
Meanwhile, the two sides are at odds over the details of a proposal to extend jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans who lost them late last year.
A bill to extend those benefits for three months appeared to be headed for passage, but an updated Democratic proposal — which took the benefits to November — is meeting with stiff opposition from Republicans who argue it must be fully paid for.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Steve Southerland, Florida Republican, said ending emergency unemployment insurance can serve as an economic incentive. He pointed to North Carolina, which has created about 35,000 jobs and where the jobless rate has fallen from 8.9 percent to 7.4 percent in the six months since the state’s emergency unemployment benefits ended.
“Let’s learn from that. Let’s learn how we can apply it on a more broad scale,” he said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, took issue with that position and the broader idea that jobless benefits offer incentives for out-of-work Americans to stay home rather than look for jobs.
“They take the insulting position that these people are just sitting back and taking unemployment compensation,” Mr. Van Hollen said, also appearing on “Fox News Sunday.”